In a powerful journey from the depths of depression and attempted suicide to a life filled with purpose and passion, Will Atherton, one of the world’s foremost dog trainers, shares his incredible story. As he candidly reveals, he once battled with a painful darkness that seemed insurmountable, but it was his love for dogs that ultimately became his saving grace.
Will’s journey began with a childhood filled with a longing to fit in and be liked. Dogs, particularly his family’s Jack Russells, provided solace and companionship, even in the face of their mischievous behaviour. However, it was a chance encounter with “The Dog Whisperer” on television that ignited the spark within him.
“I remember it so clearly”, Will Says.
“I’m flicking through the channels, and I see The Dog Whisperer and I was like, What is this? And that was it. Seeing this man on TV deal with these crises and being calm and relaxed and still kind, that resonated with me.”
This marked the beginning of his fascination with dog training, where he read up on any books, he could find about dog training before putting his skills into practice with his unruly Jack Russell.
Despite initial challenges, Will’s determination led him to become known as the “dog guy” in his community. Along the way, he experienced the devastating loss of his beloved bull mastiff, a heartbreak that left him struggling.
But then came Sully, an instant connection, and the start of a new chapter in both of their lives.
“It was instant. Instant. I watched the litter for seconds and I knew it would be Sully straight away, he was perfect. He was confident without being pushy, he wasn’t fearful. There was no doubt in my mind it was him.”
After this, Will’s journey took an unexpected turn when he attempted to start a dog care business, which didn’t go as planned. Feeling lost and uncertain about his future, he found solace in volunteering at a special needs school for boys with behavioural issues. It was here that he honed his skills in dealing with extreme and unpredictable behaviours, saving lives in crises.
“A lot of the young people I worked with; they had been through horrible, horrible situations. All kinds of abuse, that led them to display behaviours that made it unsafe for them to function in schools. Violence was common, and I personally intervened with legitimate suicide attempts.
I had to learn very, very quickly how to handle very extreme, unpredictable behaviours, and I found I was quite good at it,” Will explains.
Over the years, Will’s vision grew, leading him to establish a private, independent Ofsted registered school for young people. However, the pressure and workload took a toll on his mental health. Panic attacks and depression became a daily battle, and he felt trapped in the relentless pursuit of his goals.
“Depression came quick and went dark very, very quickly. It was seeing my wife and young son that worried me, I’m like ‘Oh man, this is the life I’m going to put them through?’ I was convincing myself that there was only one other option.”
Will’s depression led to him driving down to a train track with his dog, Sully, looking for a way out. Only the urgent text messages of a friend were between him and the train tracks where he sat in tears ready to end his life.
“That day, everything just kind of came crashing down. Day to day became unbearable. It was darkness that was unavoidable. But the pinprick of light at the end of the tunnel was Sully would be with me.”
Sully’s unwavering presence provided a glimmer of hope, and their daily walks offered a brief respite from the darkness.
Slowly, and with a lot of professional counselling, training and spending time with Sully reignited Will’s passion for dog behaviour and training.
Will’s determination to make a difference led him to work with challenging breeds and dogs with complex histories. He realised that the skills he had acquired while working with special needs children were equally applicable to dogs. This revelation marked a turning point in his life.
“It was like this light bulb moment that went off, realising I just needed to alter the strategy to make it applicable for dogs. And I decided I wanted to do this, so I could live a life whereby I’m waking up excited about what I want to do, and that I’m not trapped by.”
Today, Will is a renowned dog trainer and canine behaviourist and is one of the world’s biggest and best trainers, having helped millions of dogs worldwide with the most dangerous and highest-risk animals being handled by him at his centre in Derbyshire.
He now spends his time rehabilitating dogs and working with people with mental health issues, training support animals for people with autism or other problems and helping solve complex behavioural problems.
“After everything I’ve been through, it means more to me than ever that I still advocate for hard work.
“If it’s pointed in the right direction and if that right direction is fulfilment and passion and joy, as opposed to ego and pride and money and status, then it’s something I want to be a part of because that’s what’s right.”
His journey is a testament to the power of perseverance and the healing potential of the bond between humans and dogs. Sully, his faithful companion, continues to be his source of inspiration and support, reminding him of the importance of love, kindness, and purpose.
Will tells more about his story in his recent YouTube documentary, which can be viewed here.